1945: The Belsen war criminals

6 comments December 13th, 2008 Headsman

On this date in 1945, British hangman Albert Pierrepoint executed eleven guards of the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp and two other Nazis in occupied Hameln.

Liberated only eight months before these hangings, Belsen provided the to-us-familiar store of Nazi atrocity stories. Forty-five sat in the dock at the Belsen trial under British military authority, including the notorious camp commandante Josef Kramer — better known as the Beast of Belsen — and the “Angel of Death” Irma Grese.

Those two, and nine others less distinctively nicknamed, faced the gallows. (They were hanged together with two other war criminal convicts not connected to the Belsen trial, Georg Otto Sandrock and Ludwig Schweinberger, for a total of 13.)

On December 13, 1945, Pierrepoint hanged Grese; then, Elisabeth Volkenrath; and then, Juana Bormann, each individually. Finally, the men were then dispatched in pairs.

(Other than Kramer, the most notable was Nazi doctor Fritz Klein, who gave this reading of medical ethics when queried while the camps were still operating: “My Hippocratic oath tells me to cut a gangrenous appendix out of the human body. The Jews are the gangrenous appendix of mankind. That’s why I cut them out.”)


Of all this batch, Irma Grese, the “beautiful beast”, enjoys the liveliest afterlife.

If one finds her pretty, then she was a pretty young thing — only 16 when she hitched herself to the SS; turning 22 during her fatal postwar trial.

Stalking the camp with her whip, and (rather conveniently) cited with the ravenous sexual appetite a B-movie screenwriter would give such a character, part of her siren song is plainly the fetishistic magnetism of Nazi women.

But in the numerous discussion threads about Irma Grese, any number of her advocates will emerge.

Can we leave it at the fascination that female war criminals inspire? Certainly few 22-year-old Einsatzgruppen men have the mitigatory evidence of a coming-of-age in farming and retail so lovingly emphasized, the precise measure of complicity in genocide analyzed in such detail (pdf).

Grese, perhaps, strikes as impressionable, in the youthful sense of absorbing one’s place from the world one inhabits. Her hangman wrote that “[s]he seemed as bonny a girl as one could ever wish to meet.” As a camp guard, she wins promotions; to her interrogators, she accepts responsibility equal to Himmler’s; among those condemned at the Belsen trial, she alone is defiant.

In that guise — and whether or not it is rightly attributed to her — she presents back to her interlocutor those timeless questions of personal identity and moral responsibility: where does abnormal psychology leave off into perfectly conventional psychology that just happens to occupy an abnormal world?

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,Concentration Camps,Death Penalty,England,Execution,Famous Last Words,Germany,Hanged,History,Infamous,Mass Executions,Occupation and Colonialism,War Crimes,Women

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2006: Angel Diaz

9 comments December 13th, 2007 Headsman

On this date one year ago, Angel Diaz suffered lethal injection for the 1979 murder of a topless bar manager.

And “suffered” was the word. The procedure was botched, and Diaz took 34 minutes — and a second dose of the lethal three-drug cocktail — before dying, with chemical burns left on both arms.

The incident provoked an immediate media storm and a moratorium on executions in Florida pending the perversity of public servants molding killing procedure by committee. As a result, Diaz remains the last person executed in Florida, and 2007 will be the first year since 1982 that the Sunshine State puts nobody to death.

The debacle in Florida has been a microcosm for the nation. Lethal injection as an execution protocol was by this time last year already facing growing scrutiny. It was immediately apparent that Diaz’s execution could spell serious trouble for the American death penalty’s legal machinery.

And indeed that machinery has now ground to a halt, if only a temporary one. Facing judicial confusion, the Supreme Court is weighing a potential landmark case on the constitutionality of lethal injection, with actual executions — at least involuntary ones — under a de facto moratorium for months yet to come.

That same disquiet is setting down legislative as well as judicial milestones: New Jersey is poised to has this very day become the first American state to abolish the death penalty since 1965.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 21st Century,Botched Executions,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,Florida,Lethal Injection,Murder,New Jersey,Notable Jurisprudence,Ripped from the Headlines,USA

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